The Releasing of al-Megrahi: Scotland’s Parliament Debates

Gerry Hassan

Open Democracy, August 24th 2009

The decision by the Scottish Government to release the convicted Libyan bomber Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the only person who has been found guilty for the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 which blew up over Lockerbie, has had huge consequences, both domestic – in Scotland and the UK, and internationally.

The ripples and waves caused by the Scottish Government’s release of al-Megrahi are manifold, and show how Scotland, its statehood and nationhood are misunderstood – from Scotland, to the UK and further afield.

Firstly, the recall of the Scottish Parliament on August 24th – only the third ever such occasion (the other two being the deaths of Donald Dewar and the Queen Mother) was filled with drama. Kenny MacAskill’s statement was simple and factual; his tone appropriately sober.

He declared that he would ‘live with the consequences’ of his decision, which he had taken ‘without reference to political, diplomatic or economic considerations’. None of the three main opposition party leaders laid a killer punch on MacAskill. Iain Gray, Scots Labour leader, droned on in his charisma free way, talking of the shame of seeing ‘our flag’ used in celebrations in Tripoli (1). Gray managed to combine low-keyness with before hand going over the top, declaring that Alex Salmond was ‘not fit to be First Minister’ and leaving no place to retreat if he does not next week table a vote of no confidence (2).

Annabel Goldie, Tory leader, affirmed that MacAskill’s decision was not made in the name of Scotland, but of the SNP administration, and Tavish Scott for the Lib Dems noted the harm done to Scotland internationally. All three seemed content to make cheap political points rather than gather more political information about the decision, and while the reliably out-of-touch Magnus Linklater bemoaned MacAskill’s ‘solid if uninspiring performance’, MacAskill came out with his reputation enhanced (3).

Apart from MacAskill the most impressive contribution came from Malcolm Chisholm, Labour MSP and former Health Minister, who broke ranks and commended the Justice Secretary for ‘a courageous decision which is entirely consistent with both the principles of Scots law and Christian morality, as evidenced by the widespread support of churches across Scotland’ (4).

What was revealing was much of the commentary in the lead up to the Scottish Parliament which showed little understanding of the procedures of devolved Scotland.

Many opinion pieces and voices talked of the Scottish Government facing a vote of no confidence and facing the prospect of falling from office. The Times were  one example of this, having on the Monday a front cover screaming ‘Lockerbie release could topple SNP Government’ (5); the Daily Mail shouted even louder, ‘Will the Bomber Topple Salmond?’ (6).

There was little differentiation between a vote against an individual minister and that of the whole administration, or understanding of the Scotland Act 1998 which sets our many of the parameters here. Some of this ignorance is because many of the procedures have never been used or even threatened with use. Much of it is also because the Scottish Parliament is a multi-party, proportionally elected body with a minority government. This is thus a politics far removed from Westminster mindsets. Yet many of the people who comment on Scottish politics have been shaped by Westminster thinking (including those based in Scotland).

A vote of no confidence in the Scottish Parliament against an entire administration would lead to that government falling, but a general election does not automatically follow. Instead, under the Scotland Act Section 45, the election of a new First Minister has a window of 28 days to happen, before provoking fresh elections. The Parliament can also dissolve itself and produce an ‘extraordinary general election’ by a two-thirds vote.

What these complex arrangements mean is that with a minority government, all the four main parties have to make decisions and calculations similar to a complex, late night game of poker, assessing and analysing and making judgements about their rivals thinking and possible actions. And then acting on these assumptions. And on occasions misjudging their opponent’s calculations.

So far the SNP’s mere one seat lead over Labour – 47 seats to 46 seats in a 129 member Parliament – has proven remarkably stable over what is now coming up for the last two and a half years. This is in part because neither the Tories or the Lib Dems want to bring down the SNP and put Labour back into office.

Then there is the wider British establishment ignorance of Scotland. It might still in oldie Macmillan-Home Tory fashion be hunting, shooting and fishing  grounds for Conservative leader David Cameron, but there is less a prevalent Jockophobia in London than ignorant bliss in much of this. That isn’t to say there isn’t a visible, virulent strand of Jockophobia in some of this.

Speaking of which. A whole host of English based commentators: Alexander Chancellor, the Daily Mail, The Sun and more, seem to barely know Scotland exists as a nation with a separate judicial and legal system, which long predates devolution and stretches back hundreds of years. This ignorance, this absence of an understanding of Scotland and the nature of the union, matters, and matters when it spills over into in places to uncontrollable rage and fury at a small nation and polity daring to do things differently.

Notes

1. BBC Scotland News, ‘Minister stands by bomber release’, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/8216897.stm

2. The Daily Mail, August 24th 2009.

3. BBC News, op. cit.

4. Magnus Linklater, ‘Analysis: The Phrase that could haunt Kenny MacAskill over Lockerbie decision, The Times online, August 24th 2009, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article6808176.ece

5. The Times print edition, August 24th 2009.

6. The Daily Mail, August 24th 2009.